Revelations in a recently published study of entrenched poverty in Washington connote a serious problem in the local economy as well as the presence of a major social ill.
The title of the study, "No Easy Answers: Persistent Poverty in the Metropolitan Area," puts everybody on notice immediately that no single remedy will eliminate or reduce this complex problem.
The study's author notes that, over the short term, there are no easy answers to the problem. On the other hand, she suggests that the single most effective way for the District to reduce poverty over the long term may be to increase the educational levels of its poor residents, especially young blacks.
This strategy could be supported by two other efforts, Joan Paddock Maxwell adds: reducing teen-age pregnancy and increasing employment opportunities for able-bodied residents.
Maxwell also concludes that the only way to reduce poverty among significant numbers of persistently poor black D.C. residents appears to be through some form of enhanced income support. But in suggesting such a controversial alternative, Maxwell raises several provocative, but unanswered, questions about how it might be achieved.
To be sure, there are no easy answers. The long-term challenge for educators, sociologists and politicians in addressing systemic poverty issues is especially great. Meanwhile, the evidence suggests that business leaders and government officials can devise short-term solutions, at least, to this socioeconomic problem.
Although the Maxwell study is probably the first comprehensive look at the extent of poverty in the District and surrounding areas, the report contains fragments of a common thread that runs through several recent studies of the local economy. Philip Dearborn, vice president of the Greater Washington Research Center, summed it up earlier this year in a report titled "The Changing Washington Economy."
"The District continues to be the focal point of problems associated with poverty and unemployment," Dearborn noted.
Previous studies developed for the research center documented a continuing massive loss of jobs in the District as the suburbs benefit from a structural shift in the region's economy. In 1976, 42 percent of the area's jobs were in the District. By 1990, the District's share of jobs is expected to diminish to 32 percent, according to government and private studies. Of nine area jurisdictions, the District was the only one to lose jobs from 1977 to 1982, "continuing a pattern that was established in the previous decade," the GWRC found.
Indeed, the District's share of area jobs has declined every year since 1950.
A close reading of other studies done for the GWRC (the Maxwell study is the most recent) and labor market reports from the D.C. Department of Employment Services strongly suggests a correlation between the rise in unemployment and poverty in the District.
Consider the following, from the Maxwell report: In 1970, 62 percent of District black males aged 16 and over worked full time; by 1980 the number had fallen to only 39 percent. In 1970, 43,848 black adult males in the District were unemployed or not in the labor force. By 1980, this number had risen to 62,130.
"Unless the downward trend in employment for black men is reversed -- both in the area as a whole, and especially for District residents aged 16 to 39 -- poverty is likely to increase among blacks in the Washington area, particularly those living in the District," Maxwell concluded.
That has significant implications for the District's economy. The two largest employment sectors in the District are government and services. Government employment has declined substantially in recent years, and although there has been massive growth in the service industry, that "has not provided the kind of employment buffer that one would expect," Dearborn observed earlier this year.
Labor market surveys show that the fastest growing segments of the services sector in metropolitan Washington are legal and other professional occupations. The District not only continues to lose its share of those jobs, but lower-skilled jobs as well. Manufacturing in the District was down 6.5 percent between 1979 and 1983 and continues to decline. Wholesale and retail jobs fell by 6,500 in the same period. Construction plummeted 25 percent between 1979 and 1984, followed closely by a drop in the wholesale sector.
This decades-long trend has resulted in fewer low-skilled jobs for District residents.
"Work is the ticket out of poverty for the temporary poor," Maxwell maintains.
Local business leaders and government officials can provide that ticket in a cooperative aggressive program to bring more blue-collar jobs to the city.